By Brooke Bilyj
With a keen ability to spot growth opportunities and adapt to shifting markets, Harry Allen Jr. has grown Great Lakes Power Products by leveraging connections he’s built throughout his career.
The idea for starting the company in 1973 grew out of his relationships with two previous employers. At the time, Allen worked for a manufacturer of transmissions, clutches and powertrain components in Wisconsin. The company needed a strong distributor to serve customers in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana—so he decided to take on the job himself. He partnered with a diesel engine distributor in Louisiana that he’d previously worked for to open a franchise for the company in Mentor, Ohio.
Since then, Allen has pursued countless more opportunities, acquisitions and partnerships to grow Great Lakes Power into a full-service distributor, manufacturer, engineering and service provider of off-highway power transmission products and accessories. Still based in Lake County, the company has expanded to 13 branch locations and four operating entities to serve global industries spanning construction, industrial, oil and gas, government, marine and mining.
Through all the market ups and downs the company has experienced through the decades, Allen says Great Lakes Power has continued to grow by staying ahead of one question: How can we serve our customers better?
“Our focus has always been on providing a better solution to our customers’ application problems,” says Allen, founder and chairman. “That’s what makes us a step better than many distributors or manufacturers; we strive to understand our customers’ product application as well as they do and add value along the way.”
Ebb and flow
Early on, the company’s primary focus was the offshore oil marine business, along with the industrial market But by the end of the 1970s, “the oil and gas business was going downhill quick, so we were actively seeking ways to diversify,” says Allen.
Great Lakes Power expanded its product offering by building new relationships with other manufacturers, while expanding geographically beyond Ohio into Michigan, Pennsylvania, Indiana and West Virginia. Ultimately, Great Lakes Power Products purchased two lift truck franchises from another company, marking its first introduction into the automotive market, through its materials handling division in Michigan.
Many of the products that the company was representing were not off-the-shelf items, meaning that the components often required application engineering and modification, in addition to ongoing repair and rebuilding. Great Lakes Power grew beyond distribution to serve other needs in this niche, first by adding a manufacturing division focused on specialized products for the marine and industrial markets. Then, in 1987, Great Lakes Power Products announced the formation of a new entity called Great Lakes Power Service Co., focused on providing repair, maintenance and remanufacturing of products.
So in 1989, when another company discontinued manufacture of its straddle carrier equipment used to move large loads around shipyards, steel mills, oil refineries and military bases, Great Lakes Power was perfectly positioned to pick up the slack. After remanufacturing the legacy straddle carriers for years, the company combined that experience with innovation to engineer a proprietary replacement product, the ST35 Yard Bully, which was introduced in 2010.
Spurred by this new product launch, Great Lakes Power increased its market share in Michigan throughout the 1990s, gaining inroads at large automakers.
“In 1990, we got a major auto manufacturer’s attention by suggesting we install electric lift trucks into their casting plants,” Allen says. “We became the primary (material handling) supplier for its plants in the Midwest.”
Great Lakes Power’s material handling division in Michigan set a goal of $35 million in revenue by 1998. “They just made it,” Allen says, “only to begin to experience an unprecedented decline in the automotive business.” By the end of the next decade, nearly 100 of Great Lakes Power’s customers either filed for bankruptcy or just shut their doors during a 14-year stretch, including two major automakers.
“We had a lot of open purchase orders with an auto manufacturer, and I remember them telling us in October 2007, ‘Do not ship anything before March 1, 2008, irrespective of what you have in process,’” Allen says. “That, combined with the rest of the economy, was the most difficult business environment I ever experienced.”
The company’s Michigan lift truck operation declined until the unit was ultimately sold off in 2012. To diversify this time, Great Lakes Power went back to its wheelhouse and refocused on supplying off-highway transmission and drivetrain components through new partnerships.
The third entity, North Atlantic Power Products, is the company’s distribution and service arm in New England. Opened in 2000, it acts as the main hub for marine distribution, while also serving construction, forestry, mining, energy, industrial and agricultural markets. Following that, US Power was established in North Carolina as a result of an acquisition of a supplier’s rebuild center in Statesville, North Carolina.
Just as the company began with several key partnerships, those strategic relationships have been key to surviving and growing through market ups and downs.
“Obviously, the industrial marketplace in Northeast Ohio has changed over the years with the decline of manufacturing and steel in our country,” Allen says. “We have replaced that business with key strategic OEM [original equipment manufacturer] alliances, where we have established ourselves as an extension of our OEM customers, providing them the service, repair, rebuild exchange and all the things they need to support their aftermarkets.”
Allen ostensibly retired at the end of 2010, as a way to “provide more decision-making responsibility to the senior management team and my four children, who all work in the business,” he says. “I remember hearing from other family businesses, where the younger generation says, ‘Dad just won’t get out of the way,’ and I didn’t want to be that guy.”
He stays involved in the business by reinforcing the philosophies, partnerships and priorities that have grown Great Lakes Power through the decades. After all, the company’s growth has heavily relied on long-standing, loyal relationships with suppliers and vendors, from niche industrial manufacturers to the local bank.
“Ever since I started the company with a loan in 1973, I’ve realized the value that a bank can provide us, both in our business strategy as well as our credit needs,” Allen says. “Huntington has provided good counsel on financial risk.”
As a community board member for Huntington, Allen says the bank has helped his business grow in ways far beyond financial. “I get to witness some business practices used by Huntington, and I’ve introduced them into my own organization,” he says. “An example is (Huntington) Chairman Steve Steinour’s priority of communicating with his employees. In fact, we’re meeting with Huntington’s videoconferencing staff to implement a similar system, because I’m impressed by his efforts to have intimacy with his employees, wherever they are.”As Great Lakes Power continues to grow, Allen strives to stay connected to his team of more than 150 employees. Leveraging the combined strengths of 13 diverse branch locations east of the Mississippi, he says, is key to providing the best power transmission products and services in the industry.
The Spirit of America
Spending time at his parents’ Lake Erie cottage as a child, Harry Allen Jr. developed a passion for boating. As a young teenager, he read every boating magazine he could find. He remembers reading an article about a passenger boat that set the speed record from Toledo to Buffalo, with a time around 24 hours.
Allen maintained his infatuation with boats over time. He built his own race boat in the 1970s, and did it again in 1994.
“Taking products that we represented or manufactured at Great Lakes Power Products, I put together a state-of-the-art race boat named ‘Spirit of America,’” he says.
In September 1996, it set a new world record racing across Lake Erie from Toledo to Buffalo in three hours. Then in May 1997, the Spirit of America captured the Sun Coast to Gold Coast Victory Cup, setting another world record. And in June 1998, it set a world record at Miami/Nassau, “the granddaddy of all off-shore powerboat races,” Allen says.
But it wasn’t all about the races. Through this experience, Allen recognized a larger opportunity to impact other kids by sharing his boating knowledge.
“Many youngsters in Northeast Ohio didn’t experience the same thing I did, learning to enjoy safe water recreation and the responsible behaviors that go along with that,” he says. “So I got together with local educators—superintendents from Mentor and Perry Schools—and we started a youth education program named after my race boat.”
Leveraging these relationships, the Spirit of America Youth Education Program for water and boating safety taught its first class of seventh-grade graduates in 1995. Allen also established a nonprofit, the Spirit of America Foundation, to increase the reach of the experience-based education program.
Now under the leadership of President and CEO Cecilia Duer, the foundation operates more than 20 youth boating education programs in seven states. With more than 10,000 graduates, the program has gained attention from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Coast Guard for its contributions to water safety.